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A letter from Bob Butterfield in Portugal

Spring 2014

Dear Friends in Mission,

We took our friend Fernanda for a ride along the coast. She's learning to walk again after a devastating car accident.

Keiko and I greet you in Christ’s name and thank you once again for supporting the work we do in Portugal.  By helping us, you come alongside the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Portugal (IEPP) and give it the boost it needs to gear up for the challenges of spreading the gospel in this part of the world.

A major part of this challenge comes from the fact that, because the IEPP is such a small denomination, children who grow up in it almost inevitably end up marrying someone from another church body or from no church.  There is, then, no guarantee at all that people who are raised in the IEPP or their children are going to remain in the IEPP.  This problem has been exacerbated by the emigration of so many young Portuguese, especially our own youth, who were forced to leave the country in search of work abroad.  What this means is that the IEPP is not self-generating in the way a church body with a larger number of young members might be.  As a result, the IEPP has to do much more to attract new members.

This is our congregation and Bible study group in Granja do Ulmeiro.

One way our congregation in Alhadas is doing more involves Sunday School.  Traditionally this congregation has had a strong Sunday School, but kept it to itself.  Now we are advertising our program as desirable for all children in town whether Protestant or not and whether or not their parents are interested in a church for themselves.  Attending our Sunday School is a great experience for all children, we say, and we have in fact attracted children from outside the congregation.  The next step is to encourage all these children to attend worship.  Surprisingly, this congregation was usually content if children attended Sunday School and did not urge them to attend worship too.  Finally that’s changing, and our children are beginning to get involved in worship.  Worshiping is an acquired taste, a gradual learning process, but our children are starting to enjoy it.

The IEPP's Executive Commission (left to right) Sandra Reis, Carlos Matos, Maria Eduarda Titosse, Bob, Dulce Cabete, Silvina Queiroz

Because the IEPP came into being in the 1950s in a political atmosphere quite unfriendly to Protestants, it never really learned how to reach out to the general population, which, though overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, is largely non-practicing.  I’m talking about people who grew up nominally Catholic but have fallen away.  Presbyterians in Alhadas and Granja do Ulmeiro are coming to the realization that these ex-Catholics need the kind of church community we can offer them.  After all, being Christian is a community activity; you can’t be a Christian on your own.  It would be fine with us if these fallen-away Catholics returned to their childhood faith, but they’re not going to do that.  So we’re going to offer them the church home they need so that they can hear the gospel and enjoy the warm fellowship of Christ’s presence.  We’re not trying to steal them away; we’re trying to evangelize them.  That’s the blessing we can give them.  In order for this to happen, however, our own members have to learn some things they really have not done before, like inviting their friends, colleagues, neighbors, and relatives to share in activities at our churches or like relating their faith to what’s going on in the world.  The extreme minority status of the IEPP has made its members shy about speaking out loud or welcoming outsiders, and so the emphasis now in our preaching is on acting out and expressing our faith with apostolic boldness.  One of the unforeseen results of this emphasis is that our own members have come to a renewed appreciation of just how wonderful our fellowship is and how much they need it themselves.

Recent ecumenical service in Coimbra. Bob giving the blessing.

These are, of course, very much the same circumstances that most congregations in the U.S. also face, and our response to them is also very much the same as in American congregations.  It’s just that the IEPP’s ability to respond is hampered by its history of smallness and especially by its general lack of resources.  That’s why your support of our work with IEPP is so very useful and necessary.  Our hope and plan—Keiko’s and mine—is that we can get things moving in a positive direction, train more people, build up people’s confidence, and establish some patterns of evangelization so that when we leave Portugal our congregations will have learned how to be effective agents of evangelization in their respective towns.  The reason this task is so challenging is that our congregations literally never thought about reaching out until just recently.  They did charity in the larger community, but it never occurred to them that they could or should evangelize people who were outside their congregation.

Three Presbyterian colleagues (left to right) Pastors João Pereira, Maria Eduarda (Nini) Titosse, and Paulo Silva

One of the biggest encouragements for Keiko and me is that both of our congregations have a serious interest in studying the Bible.  We do a two-hour Bible study every week with the congregation in Granja do Ulmeiro, and over the last two years they have come a long way in their understanding of the Bible and of the Christian faith.  They had been in Bible study a lot before we came, but, according to them, they were afraid to ask questions and were not encouraged to think very deeply.  With our coming, all that has changed, and it may be because I use the rabbinical method, which is to encourage diversity and dissent and to treat every question or comment as an opportunity to see something new, and that style makes everybody feel like thinking and sharing.

Our son Kenji and grandson Nikko in San Francisco

In Alhadas we started out doing Bible study with the older women, who at the time were the only ones who wanted to do it.  But now the younger women have gotten interested and have largely taken over the group.  And that’s a very good sign because they are full of energy and commitment to the church.  Their enthusiastic participation in Bible study and in everything else that goes on fills us with hope for this congregation.  These younger women are the ones who will make this church really vibrant.  For Keiko and me, there’s nothing that energizes us quite so much as working with people like this who are hungry for the gospel and really see how important the church is for themselves and for their children. 

Keiko and I want to be sure you all understand that your support for our work here is making a difference, even if at times that difference is visible only to the eyes of faith.  I like to think that this mission is like an old man’s planting a fruit tree.  He may not live long enough to see it bear fruit, but someone will. 

Yours in Christ’s service,
Bob Butterfield    

The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 276
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